Deals to acquire and lease MQ-9 Predators to be unveiled during Prime Minister Modi’s state visit

India and the US are to announce one of their largest defence deals during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming state visit to Washington. The deal to buy 18 MQ-9 Predator drones worth $3 billion (Rs 24,000 crore) from the United States will bolster the India- US strategic partnership. Both countries are to also finalise a multi-billion dollar agreement to manufacture US-designed General Electric F 414 fighter jet engines in India. A separate Rs 800 crore agreement to lease two MQ-9 Sea Guardian drones for the Indian Navy, will also be announced.

The deals will cement the US’ position as India’s second-largest supplier of defence hardware after Russia. Since 2008, the US has sold India $18 billion worth of military hardware. The most recent deal was a $2.1 billion purchase of 24 MH-60R Seahawk naval helicopters signed in February 2020.

The MQ-9 is a satellite-steered High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drone. It can fly at an altitude of 45,000 feet and stay on task for 35 hours. It has sensors like radar and electronic support measures which locate the enemy and can attack targets with bombs and missiles.

The Indian Navy has been operating two unarmed MQ-9 Sea Guardians obtained on lease from the US. These were inducted under the Indian Navy’s emergency powers in the wake of the Ladakh standoff in 2020 and meant to monitor the PLA Navy’s Indian Ocean deployments. Both RPAs are based at INS Rajali, a naval air station 70 km west of Chennai.

The MQ-9 acquisition has been in the pipeline for six years. In 2017, the navy proposed the purchase of 22 Sea Guardians. The following year, the defence ministry converted the case into a tri-services acquisition of 30 drones—ten units for each service. The numbers were slashed to just six units for budgetary reasons and to promote indigenously made equipment.

While the previous deal was between the Indian Navy and the US firm General Atomics under the navy’s emergency purchase powers, the new deal will be signed by India’s defence ministry and the foreign vendor. This deal is unique in the sense that there will be no transfer of technology or defence offsets. The drones will be delivered within five years. Also with this deal India will become the first non–NATO state to receive armed UAVs from the US for deployment along its borders and also the Indian Ocean region.

The MQ-9B, sometimes called the Predator-B, is a larger version of the Predator Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) which first flew in 1994. The Predator-series RPAs are since the lynchpin of the US’s global presence, deployed in hot spots around the world. On March 14 this year, a Russian Su-27 fighter jet intercepted a MQ-9 Reaper drone near Crimea forcing it to crash.

A senior officer said the MQ-9s are superior to the leased RPAs because they are military aircraft unlike the leased RPAs which are akin to ordinary leased aircraft. “ The MQ-9s we are buying are uprated with a new radar and higher service ceilings. They have a due regard radar, meaning one permitted to fly in controlled air space. The current (leased) drones fly at around 26000 ft and is not a military aircraft.”

“Area coverage and endurance of these crafts is a game changer that even satellite coverage can not provide. Satellites are good for strategic surveillance, for tactical surveillance in tactical areas these aircraft with their endurance, their operating height are really effective”, said Rear Admiral Sudhir Pillai (Retd)

Drone have altered warfare. Both sides in the Russia-Ukraine war are using drones to target troops, equipment and bunkers. A May 2023 RUSI report said Russia was shooting down 10,000 Ukranian drones a month. Closer home, Chinese drones have been a major concern for the Indian Army along the LAC. In December 2022 the Indian Air Force had to scramble its fighter jets to counter air violations by Chinese drones in Arunachal Pradesh. Pakistan too has been deploying drones to smuggle arms and drugs across the border. In June 2021 Pakistan based terror outfit attacked Indian Military establishment in Jammu and Kashmir using drones firing shaped explosive charges.

Pakistan has developed UAVs and UCAVs in collaboration with China and also there is a concern that Turkey’s impressive advancement in drones technology can lead to transfer of technology to Pakistan. In such a scenario, the Predator acquisition enables the Indian armed forces to boost effective surveillance on its land and sea frontiers before indigeneous options can be fielded.

“US, Russia and China and interestingly Turkey have developed drone technology. So yes, it is a cause of concern. They have counter drone capacity and we need to work on that. Presently there is a void in all three services as far as drone technology and surveillance is concerned. We need to fill that void. We are dependent on foreign technology and we are working on indigenous technology,” says Lt Gen Vinod G Khandare (Retd), Principal Advisor, Ministry of Defence.

Drones are the future in warfare and family of drones include small, medium and large drones, with a variety of payloads are leading the way. “India needs to take giant strides in manufacturing drones”, General Khandare says.